Rough Day with Margaret leads to Ephesus and the Myth of Temple Prostitution and the Anxiety of Some Really Scary Christian Men (and Women)

What a day!  I was storming out the door, fuming for no reason in particular, on my way to the library, finally, to get to my writing, my real work, and then stopped, stupidly, on the sidewalk as soon as I saw her and remembered.

Margaret, good old thing, 25 years old, sitting bleakly at the curb, neglected, dirty, and flooded.  Still beautiful, of course.  She’s a Jeep Grand Wagoneer, Limited, with wood sides and shiny burgundy finish, all-leather tan interior, a fully loaded (for 1985) 4- to 10- seater with all-power everything (for 1985), four-wheel drive, and 8 cylinders of ma-jo (as opposed to mojo).  And that’s not what’s good about her.  She’s my legacy, the only car on the planet now that has held my mother, my father, my sister, my brother and me all together at the same time in it.

She’d been giving me trouble for weeks.  Yesterday she petulantly choked up and refused to start.  I couldn’t let her rust there.  If I didn’t take her in to Bruno’s now, she could die.  So I lurched back into the house, called triple-A, and  spent the rest of the morning waiting on people to help me with her.  I was remarkably serene about it, considering that I really had hoped to get away from family responsibilities and dog-care-taking for a change.  God, I needed to get some work done.

The triple-A guy was nice enough, friendly, cordial.  He locked my keys in the car, though.  Also had a surreal Christian show playing loud on the radio.  Some Australian guy, fairly articulate too, ranting on about the debauchery of Ephesus.  The people of Ephesus and their gods were soooo debauched that they actually had temple prostitutes, “male and female.”  Imagine that, having sex and calling it communion with God.

It really bummed me out.  I wanted to ask, “you don’t really believe this Brit, do you?” or say, “you know, it’s true that some religious practices associated with fertility gods in that region seem to have involved some kind of sexual rituals that have been called “prostitution,” but whatever they were–and we really don’t know–they were nothing like the practice of today.”  It wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have with him, actually.  I couldn’t see the point.  Some people just believe anything they hear on the radio, especially if the speaker’s a preacher.

But still, I kind of wish I had engaged him.  He struck me as reasonable and decent.  Had four children.  And he liked Margaret.  Kept going on about how sturdily she was built, how the doors closed, click (not true, but the myth made him feel better about having locked the keys in), and how she was the kind of car that would keep on going long after all the newer models died out.  I liked him so well I really thought about giving it a try.

Anyway, the incident brought me to think about how long we have been agitating and protesting patriarchy, which is enforced by the nicest of men, for thousands of years.  Gerda Lerner says it was invented as a system of social organization around 3000 B.C.E. but did not get fully institutionalized until about 600 B.C.E. Biblical and ancient Mesopotamia scholars have been documenting the religious practices of the regions, many of which involved fertility goddesses and gods, for a very long time now.  Early Christians, like their Hebrew predecessors and contemporaries, conflicted with these religions and obviously won the public relations war.  In the long run, they got to say that the other, bad guys’ followers were prostitutes and pimps and tricks, which is how these guys liked to describe idolatry, the worship of false gods.  The Whore of Babylon (pictured above in an 1800s Russian engraving) is the last in a long smear campaign.

So when I got home today I did a little looking into Ephesus, which was the second largest city in the Roman empire during the time of Constantine (the Emperor who converted to Christianity because he thought he’d have more military victories).  Although the story of temple prostitution is so widespread as to be a commonplace in the radio pulpit, Christian scholars do argue that

the current view rests on unwarranted assumptions, doubtful anthropological premises, and very little evidence.

That’s S. M. Baugh, associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, who also notes that

the Anchor Bible Dictionary…has no discussion of either cultic or secular prostitution in the NT world. Perhaps the editors could not find enough material for an article?  

Tongue in cheek aside, he’s serious about the job of proving that no form of temple prostitution–the exchange of sex for money that might go to the temple–in Ephesus or in an other major city during the New Testament Era.

Baugh reminds us to distinguish this practice of cult prostitution from erotic or symbolically erotic activity in rituals or mystery rites. Moreover, he cites and then interrogates ancient sources–there is actually only one–of evidence of cult prostitution during the New Testament Era.  What he finds out blows me away.  There are only two things to say about the only source we have, the Greek geographer, Strabo (ca. 64 BC-AD 21):

  1. Strabo was talking about a period 600 years before his time, and therefore was relying on oral stories, hearsay and myth; and 
  2. All Strabo says is that the temple devoted to Aphrodite was reputed to have “had,” as in “owned,” prostitutes, who may have been male or female, and who may or may not have conducted their trade on temple grounds.

They may have been concubines or slaves owned by the temple for income in a relationship of dependency not unlike working in incredibly sexist capitalist workplaces,  where women (like men) are regarded as things that make money for the institution, and where women are regarded as the least valuable or worthy things, which are also often the biggest money-makers for the institution.  Whether or not temple prostitution existed during 600 B.C.E., is not so interesting.  The really big news is that there are many good reasons to suspect that if it did, it DID NOT survive into the first century, B.C.E, when Paul was living in Ephesus.

This blows me away. Wide-spread, bald rumors about temple prostitution at Ephesus (for which thre is no evidence!) on Christian talk-show are another totally obvious example of the rewriting–Pierre Bourdieu calls is “dehistoricization”–of history by men in order to make women look bad.  Worse yet, it’s another example of the way that group that got control of the early Christian movement demonized members of different religious groups by denouncing them as debauched indulgers of carnal sex for money. You’ve heard this before:

They were so evil then, and we are so evil now, brothers and sisters.  We have to remember that we are sinners, that we were born in sin and dwell in sin except that Christ our Lord save us and cleanse us.  And once we humbly admit to our Lord and Master that we are humbly sorry for the sorry state of our souls, and begging for His help to correct ourselves, and overcome our weaknesses, then, and only then, and only with much continual scrutiny and soul-searching, and constant vigilance, we may be, MAYBE, saved.  

This is the Protestant mindset.  I know it intimately.  I was born into it and I love it although I have spent my entire life trying to unwind myself from it.

I don’t know.  It is actually kind of interesting.  Every believer is feminized, put into a position of subordination to a figure who is supposedly neither male nor female but who has for so long been referred to and represented as male, as a father, and governor that the deity has been effectively gendered male.  Think, for example, of John Donne pleading with God to beat and “rape” him.  Sometimes this Father-God is a war-monger who scourges his enemies muscularly.  His human children have wives and concubines.  This kind of prostitution is okay, because it ultimately serves the right God.

I think the paradox of Christianity is that Christian men are supposed to be all strong and powerful in governing their wives and children and family compounds (like Abraham’s) and states (like David’s), and yet, in relation to God, they are women: weak, subordinate, suppliant.  This is a problem because in mainstream and traditional Christianity, as in mainstream and traditional Judaism and Islam, masculinity is lauded, celebrated.  It is the mode of being that is most like God, the best, the strongest, the most powerful, while femininity is denigrated as the worst way to be, or trivialized at best.  That’s because masculinity can only define itself in terms of what it is not, of course.   But contemporary Christian men can never really be confident in their masculinity because they are always made to feel–as they think about it–like wimps in relation to God, who still exhorts them to be “men.” God as Coach, as Army Sergeant, or, for the more new-agey types, God as therapist, guru, teacher, Abba.   He helps them to be men even while He’s constantly reminding them, sometimes by screaming it at them, that they are women.

So in the theological and social hierarchy that Christianity embraces, men are higher, more dignified, and more powerful than women, okay?  It’s not good to be a woman in this world.  Especially if you are a man.  This is not an easy place to be–and while this conundrum makes a lot of thoughtful Christian men really lovely human beings, it and lots of other pressures in our society make a lot of Christian men very scary, very domineering and aggressive men.  They are especially scary and domineering when they lower their voices into a soft, intimate tone.  Have you all seen The White Ribbon?

I think the guys who go round spreading the rumor about temple prostitution at Ephesus in order to prove that Christianity was somehow the better religion have been doing this for a long time because, as  bizarre as it may sound, men have been under a lot of pressure to conform to a rigid notion of masculinity that is not at all human, or Christ-like, for that matter.  The war-mongering Contantine, who is said to have introduced the symbol of the cross to Christian iconography after he saw it in the shape of his sword handle, did not help matters.  It’s all one big game of men playing “who’s got the biggest.”

We are not evil.  If there is a God, and if that God is good, and that God created us, then we must also be good, like everything that would come from an all-good God.  You could say that what has happened is not the fault of God–if you believed in one, and I don’t–but rather the fault of the human beings who invented these stories, these paradigms for understanding the world, and who have gotten trapped, like the limed thrush, in their own shit.